The latest Macintosh, the Mac mini, is hardly bigger than the CDs and DVDs that it plays, but its size is as remarkable as its tiny price: either $500 or $600, based on processor speed and hard disk storage. This is the lowest price I can ever recall seeing on any Macintosh ever shipped. Even the cheapest CRT-based iMac was at least $100 more.
Apple achieved this price by sticking to the PowerPC G4 for its CPU and not including a monitor, keyboard, or mouse. The Mac mini does have a full complement of entry-level connectors found in the eMac, iMac, and iBook models: 10/100 Mbps Ethernet, modem, one FireWire 400 port, audio line out, and two USB 2.0 ports. It also has a DVI connector (with an included VGA adapter and an optional S-video/composite adapter available if needed), a critical addition to the usual array to make this unit stand out as a home or home entertainment device. The internal graphics card is an ATI Radeon 9200 with 32 MB of video memory.
The anodized aluminum and polycarbonate plastic case, now found across many Mac models (but rarely both materials in one product), measures 2.5 inches tall by 6.5 inches square (or 5 cm by 16.5 cm square). It weighs just 2.9 pounds (1.3 kg).
The standard optical drive is a Combo Drive that reads DVD formats and reads and writes CDs at 16x (CD-RW) and 24x (CD-R). The $500 model includes a 1.25 GHz PowerPC G4 processor and a 40 GB hard drive; the $600 model runs at 1.42 GHz with 80 GB of storage. The drives are relatively slow 4200 rpm 2.5-inch laptop mechanisms.
Apple Skimps on RAM, Again — Both configurations ship with just 256 MB of RAM, which is a bit of a joke to run Mac OS X effectively, though that amount is enough to play iTunes, CDs, DVDs, and handle other common home duties such as exploring the Web and checking email.
Build-to-order options include adding up to 1 GB of RAM; a SuperDrive that reads and writes both CDs and DVDs ($100); and AirPort Extreme ($80) and Bluetooth ($50). The $500 model can also be equipped with an 80 GB drive for an extra $50. Apple says RAM upgrades and post-purchase wireless modules require an Apple Authorized Service Provider, though replacing the RAM yourself apparently won’t void the Mac mini’s warranty. However, the case isn’t designed to be easily accessed – the opposite of Apple’s iMac G5, where nearly every component can be replaced by the owner.
Apple’s fee for 512 MB of RAM runs not quite double that of similar brand-name RAM ($75 versus about $40), but their $425 asking price for a single 1 GB DIMM is a pretty steep markup. I’d look into buying compatible 1 GB RAM elsewhere, paying an Apple dealer to swap it in for $30 to $50, and then reselling the 256 MB that comes out of the machine. It’s also possible that we’ll see special case-cracking tools appear shortly.
Not a Squashed Cube — The Mac mini has a number of similarities with the doomed G4 Cube, of which I was a happy buyer and still own (it’s about to become a home entertainment console.) I posted a table on my personal weblog with a head-to-head comparison of specs, and they’re eerily alike.
The Cube failed in promising a kind of design perfection that the manufacturing process was often unable to meet, and in having a premium price over the simultaneously introduced Power Mac models that offered more performance, expandability, and familiarity.
The Mac mini suffers from none of these defects. The 1.25 and 1.42 GHz processors are more than enough for all home tasks, and they create much less heat than the PowerPC G5, making such a small form factor possible.
People who have longed for a Mac and could neither afford a Power Mac nor wanted the compromise in design and flexibility of an eMac can now slap either a cheap CRT or an incredibly expensive digital LCD onto a Mac mini and have a perfectly excellent computer.